Feature Q&A: Adrian Moore on the soundtrack for FRAMED

Jerry on 2015-01-22
Framed, developed by Australian studio Loveshack

The noir-puzzle game Framed by independent developer Loveshack of Melbourne, Australia was featured in the Tokyo Game Show's Sense of Wonder Night for experimental gameplay concepts and a finalist in the 2015 Independent Games Festival for Excellence in Design.

We spoke with composer Adrian Moore on the making of the FRAMED soundtrack album, available through Bandcamp, Steam and Apple Music.

What was your response to hearing that Hideo Kojima had named Framed his game of the year for 2014?

Adrian Moore: It was a real shocker, especially for Josh, because he had grown up playing the Metal Gear games. Naming it his "Game of the Year," and not specifically a favorite mobile or cellphone game, made it particularly exciting for us.

When I saw that tweet, I was reminded of how Peace Walker includes comic book-stylized cutscenes. Considering stealth is central to both games, I think Kojima was likely impressed with how Framed has integrated its gameplay so tightly together with its storytelling.

He obviously likes movies, and I think he quite appreciated the melding of animation, art and music. I'm hoping the main reason he liked it was that it's not quite like anything he's experienced before.

There is also the noir aspect of the game, the silhouetted trench coats and duplicitous nature of the characters. It's easy to see how it would appeal to the creator of Snatcher. Did the noir aspect of the art design directly inform your compositional style?

Yes, a lot of the early drafts were very dark. I was listening to things like Hitchcock movie scores, very complex and orchestral. The art and the audio in the early stages of the project were quite downbeat. Then, instead, I decided to try to do something noir-ish, but fresh and a bit upbeat with the music. I thought that would drive the game along, keeping you motivated and inspired. Adding the pastel colors to the art brightened everything up and made the visual presentation more entertaining.

The emotional buoyancy to the music score I found worked well with the comedic elements.

Yes, it was important for us not to be too serious with it. It's a game, after all. There are also comedic moments in Hitchcock, for example. We tried to keep the pace up as much as we could and keep everything punchy.

During the course of development, you are discussing these kinds of creative choices with your collaborators at Loveshack?

Because there are only three of us, the creative roles overlap a bit between us. Josh provided the original concept and looked after the coding, while Ollie looked after the art, and I, all the audio. But all of it was a three-way collaboration, from the look, to the pacing, to the mechanics. Framed on every level was a product of passion, all aspects of it. All of us were very invested in our particular roles.

How did it come about that the three of you met and formed this studio?

We made a game together at a company in Melbourne called Firemint, where I was the lead designer. The game was called "Agent Squeek." There I was lucky enough to be given total creative freedom by the management. That is actually very rare in the industry. I used to say to Josh at the time, "You know, this creative freedom will never happen again while we are employees."

Later this game was renamed SPY mouse when the studio was bought by EA, and the three of us decided to go it alone and try something independently. We had already gelled as a team and wanted to own our own work. Now we have guaranteed for ourselves complete creative control all the time with Loveshack, over all aspects of the business, marketing, design and production.

Because my employers over the years had wanted to harness my lead design experience, I had not done any music for years and years, ever since I had worked at Bullfrog Productions in England. After leaving Firemint, I stayed at home for six months writing music and getting back into practice.

In recording with the music performers in Melbourne, what kind of quality were you looking to capture for the Framed music score?

A year before the release, every single scene in Framed had its own tune, timed exactly with how the scene played out. It turned out to be ridiculous though, to need fifty pieces of music to be written that way. I'm glad we arrived at this implementation to help the music continue over the course of several scenes and not feel stop-and-start.

We decided to have the music accompany the characters, so that each piece of music would play across several scenes. For instance, jazz was the theme for the woman character, and a more poppy main theme for the man. I didn't want it to sound too computery, too sequenced or quantized. It had to be a little scrappy, almost like a live band were playing it.

I brought in session musicians through connections in the independent scene here in Melbourne, through Maize Wallin. Lauren [Mullarvey] played the saxophone, Jay [Scarlett] played trombone and trumpets, and Sam [Izzo] improvised some of the noodly, jazzy flourishes on the keyboard.

I found the cat-and-mouse interactions between the playable characters benefited from the game's use of visual humor. The universality of sight gags is a great example of something that mobile games can leverage in reaching an international audience.

It would have been easy to become too slapstick or too serious, inserting these moments of fun within the story. I think we struck a good balance.

Within each of the music tracks that play in Framed you are manipulating stems in a way that allows you to drop out everything but the drum track in certain situations? This appears to provide you with different levels of dramatic intensity within the same music track.

That's right. The audio could then fit with the player's actions and be more involved than simply playing back in-game. There are no traditional sound effects at all. You have a snare drum for a gunshot and cymbal crashes for when someone is pushed into a rubbish bin.

The gameplay is so accessible. Have you given builds to a variety of people to gauge their reactions?

That core mechanic does have quite a wide appeal. My mum enjoys it. My four year-old niece really likes it. It just goes to show that changing the order of events to determine the outcome of the story works on different levels. It was also a conscious decision not to penalize people for failing. That was one of the key things that we decided early on. There didn't seem to be any point in making it a grueling experience.

"Game Over?"

Yeah, none of that. People have said they enjoy failing as much as they do winning, because some of those outcomes are quite funny. A second later you can try again. It's not meant to make you feel bad for not winning.

The fact that it's similar to watching a silent film makes it feel less tied to a particular language region.

It's difficult to tell a story without words. We weren't sure whether we could pull it off. But the game is being played all around the world, and with silhouettes you're allowed to exercise your imagination on the characters. They're not specifically defined people.

There certainly appear to have been no barriers to entry for Kojima. Had there been tons of expository English text and dialog he may have given up on it.

Music is a big part of the game, and that transcends all language, too.

It's something of a risk, isn't it, to center things on a gameplay mechanic that no one's ever proven will attract a wide audience?

If you're a big studio spending millions of dollars developing games, you would certainly perceive it as a risk to go out on a limb like that. But for a young developer on a small budget, it's imperative to try something new. If you're trying to make something a little bit like Candy Crush or any other existing game, people will decide that they had might as well play the original. We're hoping that with all of the Loveshack games we will have that foundation of originality, because that's what interests us.

The soundtrack for Framed is available through Bandcamp, Apple Music and Steam.